When Worthlessness Strikes: Stepping Over That Familiar Rabbit Hole

Worthlessness Rabbit Hole iStock_000010595013XSmall
As you grow, and gain joy in your healing and growing-up-in-adulthood process, it’s just as important to embrace dark moments in your growth as it is to bounce and leap into the joy-filled ones.  The expression two steps forward and one step back is diminished by its age and use, but is a remarkably wise expression.  Remember it.  Go easy on yourself, curb that little puppy that’s known as perfectionism, and observe the darkness when it slides in.  You’re bigger than it.


When you have a Sad day–or just a Sad morning–it’s not fun, but it’s normal, even if your recovery is going great (occasional sadness isn’t a sign of failure!)  For us, a Sad day isn’t just annoyance at the coffee grounds exploding all over the kitchen floor or our jackets getting ripped on some invisible nail sticking out, it’s a dizzying, punishing, inescapable feeling of worthlessness.  It seems to come out of nowhere.  And it laughs at us like the biggest, nastiest bully you ever met.  It mocks our progress, our confidence:  “Ra ho ha ha ha–look at you, smug, thinking you’re all ‘normal,’ great, and joining the rest of the good people, feeling on top of the world, huh?  Think again. You’re still you.  You’re still the crap you started out as.  Get real, honey!  Step off the sidewalk, into the gutter where you know you’ll be more comfortable.

That voice is mean and scary. Too familiar (oh  how I wish it weren’t). It’s a version of the voice we heard while growing up, the voice of a person who conditioned us as children to keep meek for their benefit and operate in survival-mode, not growth mode. It takes work, but you can get to a place of laughing at that silly bully voice and even to a place of heading it off before it walks down the street.


Would you be surprised to know that the top executives, business owners, chefs, and those tall, gorgeous types you might be passing on the street this morning are struggling against such feelings?  Shame?  Worthlessness?  They are.  So are the law enforcement people, the high school teachers, the cafe owners, the yoga instructor, the yoga student, the dry-cleaner clerk, the bagel and coffee slingers, the bus driver, the college student and retiree on the bus, etc.  Any grown-up child of alcoholic or addict parents is.  It’s true.  We’re not alone.


5 Questions to Ask the Monkey on Your Back

That deep, seemingly unshakable sense of worthlessness that we all know well is an aspect of our mental and emotional make-up that will resurface now and again to varying degrees — so, what do we do when it strikes?

1.  Who are you? Identify it.  Acknowledge that shame is happening.  Put a label on it.  “I’m feeling shame.” Or, “This is that worthlessness ACoAs sometimes get.”

2.  Who do you belong to?  Remind yourself that your deep shame and sense of being good-as-garbage is an inheritance–it’s not the real you.  The shame has to do with the emotional manipulations of your parents.  The shame is a mirage.

3.  Why don’t you sit over there?  Use your imagination to separate from it. Try to imagine it as something coming from outside you, trying to get in as opposed to something within you.  Use some kind of imagery to distance yourself from it, like seeing it as exhaust wafting toward you from a passing bus that you hold your breath to avoid inhaling. Or a floating bubble that you can blow away with a puff of breath.

4.  Why did you come?  Once you’ve observed it you can investigate it. Be an investigative reporter. Since it’s there, you may as well ask it why. “Why this visit?”  And, “Why now?” And, “What’s your agenda?” And, “Are you here to help me avoid something I’m scared to do/don’t want to do today?”

5.  Did I eat something?  Consider your diet.  Did you have chocolate, coffee, soda, or sweets–too much–the day before?  Or did you skip meals?  Unbalanced eating will trigger anxiety.  Did you sleep well?

More often than not, you’re going to start feeling more like yourself by the time you reach #2 or #3.

Other things that may trigger you:

  • Interactions with your family
  • A fight with your partner
  • A difficult therapy session
  • An insight or revelation about your childhood that brought up feelings
  • Or…when things are going well. It might sound counter-intuitive that we’d encounter a spell of worthlessness when things are great in our lives, but sometimes we absentmindedly reach for the “comfortable” old, familiar bad feelings, despite the fact they are bad feelings.

The good thing is, bad feels bad.  That’s the tip-off that you need to investigate your feelings. And you learn from it.  You grow.

Be kind to yourself.

P.S., I recommend Donna’s popst Self-Hate & ACoAs for more on getting un-stuck from this issue:  http://acoarecovery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/self-hate-acoas-part-1/



  1. Kes says:

    Timely post, I have been arm wrestling with old feelings/memories – you described it well here.
    Thanks for the tips!

  2. Donna Marie says:

    Great post. And thanks for linking. Re. your #3 point – I figured that very thing out many yrs ago. In early recovery I pictured my self-hate as black tar smeared all over my life. I slowly scraped it to one corner & told it to ‘stay’ – until I could get rid of it. Which I did!

  3. Great post. Lots I agree with. Lots of parallel experiences… including specifically a recent event with coffee grounds early in the AM that normally trigged rage, but now triggers gratitude.
    I also have experienced the “sit over there” thing in that I have learned to treat aspects of my internal dialogue (and mood) as a seperate person. I let them carry on with their monologues while I go do other things. I have learned to ignore them and replace them with positive activity. Result is they show up less often and are easier to breeze past.
    And the final ditto is for Donna’s site. Has helped me a lot.

  4. amy eden says:

    Now that is funny that you actually had a coffee grounds experience recently. I like that idea, of telling *it* to sit over there away from you, so that you can go about your day as a happy, self-confident person — while *it* chatters away. Theres power in that acknowledgment, its very….adult. Thanks for commenting, and also for making me aware of your blog. Great stuff.

  5. amy-eden says:

    Black tar! That is sticky and awful — great image. It’s so fitting…thinking about tar makes me think about how easy it is for other things to get stuck in it, other debris that are dreary and unhelpful downers…in that same way that misery loves company sort of way.
    And yet you carved out of it! So great.

  6. katie says:

    hi amy, i’ve been reading your blog for awhile, but i don’t think i’ve commented yet. it’s fantastic! i get a lot out of it and have recommended it to others. thank you for all you’re doing here.
    i also wanted to let you know i posted a link to your blog on mine today.
    wishing you well!

  7. amy eden says:

    Thank you so much for saying so and reading my stuff, it is really gratifying to know what you think!
    Sent from my iPhone

  8. Hey there,
    I haven’t popped by your blog for a while. As always I find comfort and familiarity here. This is a fabulous way of coping with that ‘inner voice’. I’ve learned along the way both by being in treatment/therapy and in my training as a oounselor, that for many of us it is helpful to personify those voices. One artist I knew painted pictures of her ‘characters’ and gave them names. It was very moving to see this collection of ‘people’, all so different, yet united by a common thread.
    Hope you are well,

  9. amy-eden says:

    Jenny – Thanks :-) I like the idea of using the opportunity to heal and call out the “voices” through art. That’s really great. So many ACAs are creative people, that I’m sure we could each come up with creative (dare I say “fun”?) ways to personify the “critical parent” inside our heads.
    I could imagine an exhibit of all our art – how powerful that would be.
    Thanks for this!

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